Manta ray tour proposals debated

KAILUA-KONA — Several dozen people packed into a room at the Hawaii Community College Palamanui Campus Saturday to discuss new proposals aimed at reducing crowds at popular manta ray viewing sites in West Hawaii.

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KAILUA-KONA — Several dozen people packed into a room at the Hawaii Community College Palamanui Campus Saturday to discuss new proposals aimed at reducing crowds at popular manta ray viewing sites in West Hawaii.

The proposed rules include a call to limit access at Keauhou Bay and Makako Bay, commonly known as Garden Eel Cove, by limiting the number of vessels at each site and requiring operators to get new permits in order to run manta ray viewing tours, which could mean some businesses aren’t able to continue their current operations.

The rules still have to go through an approval process, but many at Saturday’s meeting expressed concern about the impact the new rules could have on their businesses.

“Putting people out of business is not the answer,” said Jason Thurber, owner of Hawaii Oceanic.

Only companies operating as of June 2015 will be eligible for the permits, but even then, it’s no guarantee everyone will be able to continue manta ray tours.

Maria Gaydos of the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation said that if the department adopts a system that limits the number of boats in the two sites, “there will be a system through which not everyone gets a permit.”

Thurber said reducing access doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of people that would be in the water.

He said limiting access is only going to encourage companies to go with the biggest boat that can get with the highest maximum capacity.

That hurts smaller companies like his, he said, which pride themselves on small, more intimate tours.

“It just doesn’t seem like they’re taking everything into consideration,” he said after the meeting.

Martina Wing, managing director of Hawaii Ocean Watch, said she supports the new rules, adding that DLNR has been “very receptive” to concerns about the sites.

Wing said in 2013, stakeholders, including tour operators, got together to adopt voluntary standards.

Wing said the process was very transparent and “every boat operator was invited.”

The standards set rules intended to cover divers and snorkelers, prevent injuries to rays and set rules for boats at the sites.

“At the end,” she said, “50 percent of the group said ‘I don’t care.”

Wing said she hopes DLNR’s rules put more teeth behind the guidelines in place.

“I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen so far,” she said.

Gaydos said DLNR won’t hesitate to punish rulebreakers, saying violations will result in suspensions and, if necessary, revocations of the permit.

Other operators were concerned about how the proposed permits would be allocated, arguing Hawaiian-owned companies should be guaranteed recipients.

“These tiny little minority-owned companies are trying to make it with big business,” said Nicholas Yanagi, owner of My Kona Adventures, which operates out of Keauhou.

“We’re small businesses,” he said after the meeting. “We’re just trying to feed our families.”

Yanagi said 98 percent of his tours are for manta ray viewing and cutting access to the sites would hurt him significantly.

He said ensuring Hawaiian-owned businesses have access to the waters around the island would be a big boost.

“Here in Hawaii, we need something to be getting back to the Hawaiians,” he said in an interview.

Gaydos however said prioritizing Hawaiian-owned businesses might cause legal issues.

Yanagi said that while he likes some of the ideas, like limiting access to one boat per company, the biggest problem is boats that come to Keauhou Bay from Makako Bay.

When viewing in Makako Bay is poor, he said, operators there take their guests to Keauhou, crowding the bay.

Keauhou operators, he said, never go to Makako Bay and are able to police themselves.

“We all get along in Keauhou,” he said. “We don’t need to change how Keauhou operates.”

Yanagi said his focus is on making sure any rules that do pass are enacted for the right reasons.

“We want to see it done the right way,” he said.

Concerns didn’t only come from commercial operators. Nathan Abe, a fisherman, said he wants to ensure recreational boaters have access to the sites.

During manta viewing hours, the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation has proposed, one of the new moorings would be designated exclusively for recreational boaters.

Abe said he doesn’t want to see local boaters have to undergo a long permit process and jump through hoops just to see the manta rays.

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Instead, he suggested closing off the bays entirely for a couple days a month to all commercial operators, which would let more recreational boaters use the moorings.

“It has to be fair, man,” he said. “You gotta share our resources.”

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